Public kept in the dark on childcare providers

  • Red flags: the Department of Health has given details of 13 complaints against nurseries and preschools between May 31, 2015 and June 1, 2016 (File photograph)

    Red flags: the Department of Health has given details of 13 complaints against nurseries and preschools between May 31, 2015 and June 1, 2016 (File photograph)

Health and safety reports for all of the island’s registered childcare providers have been released, but the names of the businesses have been removed from the records.

The Department of Health admitted to The Royal Gazette that the identification of individual businesses to the public “may reduce possible consequences” for the infants in their care.

The department said it decided instead to release anonymised inspection reports, in part to avoid “reputational risk” to nurseries and daycare providers.

The department made its decision, in response to a public access to information request, just a day before three toddlers went missing from First Church of God Nursery and Preschool in Pembroke.

The two-year-olds are believed to have wandered across a busy road and into a backyard where construction work was under way before they were rescued by a member of the public.

The Department of Child and Family Services carried out an investigation after the July 24 incident and ruled that the nursery had failed to provide adequate supervision.

The department recommended that the nursery’s licence be suspended until a complete inquiry was conducted.

The Department of Health, which issues licences and is responsible for ensuring childcare centres meet safety standards, decided to issue a warning letter instead and the First Church of God nursery is thought to be still open for business.

A health department spokeswoman said on August 15 that all daycare centres were inspected on an annual basis to ensure they were in compliance with regulations so that they may have their licences renewed.

However, the Pati disclosure made to The Royal Gazette showed that First Church of God Nursery and Preschool was not inspected by environmental health officers at all in 2017.

The release of the anonymised inspection reports came 2½ years after The Royal Gazette asked the department to disclose health and safety records for Bermuda’s childcare providers to the public.

The request was made to provide parents using or looking for a childcare service with instant access to the most recent environmental health inspection reports and up-to-date information on complaints, as well as the results of investigations into safety incidents.

The department took 12 weeks to refuse to release inspection reports on the grounds that it would be too much work to find them. It rejected the request again after it was narrowed to cover a shorter time period.

Jennifer Attride-Stirling, permanent secretary at the health ministry, upheld the refusals in July 2016.

Another reason she gave for non-disclosure was that the records contained information which could “have an adverse effect on the commercial interests” of childcare businesses.

Gitanjali Gutierrez, the Information Commissioner, ordered the department, earlier this year, to reconsider its refusal to release the health and safety records and rejected the claim that processing the Pati request would substantially interfere or disrupt its work.

The department issued a new decision on July 23 and agreed to share the date of the last inspection, if known, for 55 daycare centres and nurseries, as well as 71 childminders who provide childcare in their homes.

Verlina Bishop, information officer at the health ministry, wrote that she would give only partial access to the inspection records, after consideration of whether it was in the public interest to release them in full.

Ms Bishop identified six arguments in favour of full disclosure, including that it “may reduce possible consequences” for current and future children, and would provide “notice and heightened awareness to daycare providers and centres that the community is interested in and watching over the care of our children”.

She listed 15 arguments against full disclosure, including that “failing to protect personal information, commercial information and information received in confidence can have serious consequences for individuals, employees and businesses”.

She said the inspection reports did not record any changes at a childcare business as the result of an inspection, so provided an incomplete picture and could “have an adverse effect on the business”.

Ms Bishop wrote: “Reputational risk and potential long-term consequences to providers and centres may result, even if steps have been taken by them to correct or remedy items of concern.”

The department has since released more than 300 pages of reports and complaints for the period May 31, 2015 to June 1, 2016 to The Royal Gazette with a blackout marker used to remove all identifying information. More recent records are still to be released.

The result is that parents remain in the dark about safety concerns at nurseries and at-home childcare services, and about the outcome of any action by environmental health officers in the wake of complaints.

The list of daycare centres and their last dates of inspection shows that, as of March 31 this year, First Church of God Nursery and Preschool was last visited in August 2016.

Its licence would need to have been renewed in 2017 to allow it to remain a registered daycare centre.

The department did not respond to questions about whether the licence was renewed without an inspection.

The health department was also unable to locate records that showed the last inspection date for six nurseries and nine childminders during the 2015-16 time frame and for five nurseries and two childminders for the period January 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018.

The decision to anonymise the inspection reports of private childcare facilities contrasted with an earlier Department of Health disclosure for government preschools.

The department released inspection reports under Pati in August 2016 for the ten state-run childcare centres, with the preschools identified.

That disclosure revealed that environmental health staff were carrying out fewer visits to daycare businesses and preschools because of staff shortages, with at least five preschools not receiving an annual inspection in 2015.

Kim Wilson, the health minister, did not respond to a request for comment.

Susan Jackson, the shadow health minister, said: “In general terms, I support the need for improved oversight and more transparency.”

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Published Aug 24, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 24, 2018 at 2:51 pm)

Public kept in the dark on childcare providers

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